When I was an undergraduate music major, I took Orchestration, which was about how different instruments worked and how they could be used together. The tests he gave had an unusual feature: there would be an extra credit question that had nothing to do with music. Sometimes he asked something like, “Why did the chicken cross the road?,” just to see if you could make him laugh. Other times he’d ask a trick question like this:
“A ship is tied up to the dock: it’s 8 feet tall, and 5 feet of water cover the side. The tide comes in, raising the water level 2 feet. How much of the ship is above water now?”
He’d be very helpful: somebody asked what the water temperature was and he answered it. I’m sure he’d also told us what the wind direction was and whether it was cloudy. However, it’s a trick question: there will be 3 feet of the ship showing above the water just like it was at low tide; the ship floats up as the water comes in.
Trick questions are used for malicious purposes as well. To say the Pharisees had gotten together with the Herodians is like saying Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz have ganged up on somebody. The question about whether it’s lawful to pay the tax has no good answer for Jesus. If he says it isn’t lawful, then he could be arrested for rebellion (they were asking this question in Jerusalem, and no doubt some Roman soldiers nearby were keeping track of the conversation.) If he says it is lawful, then he’s branded as a collaborator, which will alienate some of his followers, particularly the poor who have been impoverished by the tax.
It’s interesting that when Jesus calls them hypocrites, they prove it right away. It was against Jewish law to carry a coin with the face of the Emperor honored as a god. The Romans knew this and made blank coins for the Jews to use, because the Jews were exempt from worshiping Caesar as a god, and they liked doing business with them. For an observant Jew to have such a coin, particularly in the Temple area, was a sin by their standards and highly offensive. The guy with the coin shouldn’t be there.
Jesus gives his famous answer when they tell him who’s on the coin, and we want to cheer because Jesus has escaped the trap. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.”
I think if I had been there, I would have waited until later and asked Jesus in private: “Doesn’t everything belong to God?”
There are many Caesars around us, not just government authority, but social standards, business practices, etc., who all tell us that particular thing belong to them and not to God. We should put aside God’s standards when we come up against them, even if they violate Christian charity, because we’re talking about things that belong to Caesar. But doesn’t everything belong to God?
Caesar will tell us if someone has brought their problems on themselves, then they deserve what they get, and we have an obligation to ignore them: we shouldn’t waste our charity and good will on them. Then we work very hard to find ways to put the blame on people for their misfortune. This is in spite of the fact God puts no conditions on His charity with us, even though we create our own problems most of the time if not all the time.
Caesar will tell us that we have to have secure borders, that’s the first priority, so we can’t take any more refugees from war or poverty and we have to use force to keep them out. This is in spite of the fact we have one of the world’s largest armed forces to protect us and grow enough food that we feed the world in one way or another, and have plenty for ourselves.
Caesar will tell us that we have to protect ourselves from criminals, that’s the first priority, so we have to use men in riot gear to control peaceful demonstrations, and put people to death if their crimes are severe enough, no matter who much they may repent afterward. This is in spite of the fact we imprison more people per capita in the world that anyone else, we’re building prisons, and we’re more than capable to keeping dangerous people away from society forever without killing them.
Caesar will tell us boys will be boys, and that’s how it has to be: if you get in the way or suffer indignity or injustice from boys being boys, it’s your fault. This is in spite of the fact rape and bullying are crimes, and boys ought to grow up to be men sometime, men who don’t have to prove their masculinity by taking advantage of others in any way, shape, or form. Even God can use a pagan ruler, as He did in the first reading today, provided their justice is in line with God’s justice.
When God and Caesar are on the same side, serving the common good, doing with is just for society, then everything is the way it should be. When Caesar carves out territory with different standards, abusive standards, standards that violate what we’re called to do by faith, then we have the right to say no, and expose the trick questions and false dichotomies and propaganda that serves injustice. When Caesar says we don’t have to do charity, especially if people have brought their problems on themselves, we have the right not to listen.
Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist to show us wisdom to see through trick questions and false standards. Jesus shows us the Truth. Jesus strengthens us to respond to trick questions and how we can make things right in the world, even if we’re only witness to the Truth. Jesus will teach us how to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s.”